In 2001, former Fort Worth Star-Telegram staff writer Khalil Abdullah was fired for plagiarism. He went on to work at The Macon Telegraph in Georgia – where he recently was fired again, for the same offense. Later investigations showed that he had, in fact, been a serial plagiarizer at both papers.
“We went back and examined all 183 stories that the reporter had done for us and found at least 20 instances of plagiarized copy,” said David House, reader advocate at the Star-Telegram. “All of those files now carry a warning at the top.”
Abdullah was fired from the Star-Telegram when a Dallas Morning News reporter complained that Abdullah had lifted parts of one of her stories.
The problem is that journalists who plagiarize from other reporters may go undetected for a long time, especially if they plagiarize from someone not likely to read the offender’s paper. Similarly, reporters who make up sources from whole cloth don’t have to worry about those sources calling up editors and complaining about being misquoted.
The longer the problem goes unchecked, the bigger the hit to a newspaper’s credibility when it all finally comes out, as recent high-profile cases have demonstrated.
That can also have an effect on readership, and, in the end, on profitability, said Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.
“All you have to do is look at magazines and newspapers that have been accused of plagiarism to see the damage that it does to the compact with audience,” he said.
No newspaper is immune from this threat. Jayson Blair is but one example of a reporter who was able to game the system.
Jack Kelley, USA Today’s star foreign correspondent, made up parts of articles and plagiarized quotes and other information from competitors.
A team of 11 journalists and researchers – eight from USA Today and three from outside the paper – spent seven weeks going over 720 of Kelley’s stories and found 150 that deserved very close attention.
“To verify the stories, members of the team interviewed dozens of people; reviewed scores of Kelley’s expense reports; traveled to Cuba, Israel and Jordan; scoured records from Kelley’s hotel, mobile and office phones; reread transcripts of speeches Kelley gave; ran at least 150 stories through plagiarism-detection software; and examined the contents of the laptop computer Kelley was issued by the company,” reported Blake Morrison of USA Today.
The evidence showed that Kelley did not, as he reported, spend a night with Egyptian terrorists, meet a vigilante Jewish settler, visit a suspected terrorist crossing point on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, interview the daughter of an Iraqi general, or go on a high-speed hunt for Osama bin Laden, Morrison wrote.
The newspaper said it would withdraw all Pulitzer Prize entries it made on Kelley’s behalf and flag problematic stories that are in the newspaper’s archive.
Even guest columnists are not immune from the urge to spice up their writing just a little bit.
Central Connecticut University President Richard Judd submitted an op-ed piece about Cyprus to The Hartford Courant in February that was in part plagiarized from sources, including The New York Times. When a reader caught the problem, Judd’s career was over, and he resigned within a month.
Judd, Kelley and Blair were caught after the fact – sometimes long after the fact – because of complaints.
But for one newspaper, it’s not enough to let the readers do the policing. Starting in April, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has decided to follow Reagan’s “trust but verify” dictum when it comes to journalists and their stories.
“We’re going to select one story per week randomly for extensive fact checking,” said House. “We’ll check every single fact in the story, we will call all the sources and verify with them that their quotes are accurate and that any other information attributed to them is accurate. Our news research department will conduct Lexus-Nexus searches looking for possible plagiarism. They will also double-check facts and verify information in an effort to help spot any potential fabrications.”
The way it will work in practice is that a stack of tickets will be numbered to correspond to the number of stories printed that week and dropped into a big bowl.
“We’ll shake it up and stir it and pull the number out,” said House. “That will be the number of the story that’s checked.”
If problems are discovered, then House and his team will pull that reporter’s past stories from the archive and check those as well.
Honest mistakes will results in a printed correction on the first page of the same section in which the original story ran, and an inserted correction, in red type, at the head of the archived version of the story.
The Star-Telegram already uses a follow-up questionnaire, which is a popular way for newspapers to gauge the accuracy of their questions. As a result, the paper’s reporters aren’t completely unfamiliar with the sensation of having someone looking over their shoulder as they work.
“The accuracy questionnaire involves eight questions that are sent randomly to sources,” said House. “We don’t get many of those back, unfortunately, but when we do, the response is photocopied and the reporter gets a copy, the reporter’s editor gets a copy, the executive editor gets a copy, and I keep a copy on file.”
The questionnaires do make for good public relations for the newspaper, however.
“Normally, the response we get back is extremely positive and people say thanks for inviting our feedback,” House said. “And even all those folks who get the accuracy questionnaires and don’t reply, they know that we have tried, and they appreciate that. I’ve talked to a few of them and asked them why didn’t they reply, and they say, the schedule’s too hectic, but we sure do appreciate hearing from you and wanting to know what we thought of the story.”
Although other newspapers haven’t yet copied the Star-Telegram’s fact-checking approach, a number of them are using, or are thinking of using, post-publication questionnaires.
“In the past, we used to send out cards to ask if the story was accurate and fair, but we have not done that for several years,” said Michael Arrieta-Walden, public editor at The Oregonian.
An accuracy committee revisited the issue after the Jayson Blair incident last year but decided not to reinstitute the cards because the response rate was so low and because internal checks and balances were sufficient to address the need.
For example, contact information for editors and reporters is prominently given at the bottoms of articles and at the front of every section. In addition, Arrieta-Walden writes an accuracy column every week, occasionally talking to sources of published articles about how they were treated by reporters.
“Similarly, we try to create a climate where reporters are encouraged to report errors, and editors encouraged to report errors,” he said. “We’re concerned about the number of errors, but it’s not a huge concern. What’s equally important is the percentage of errors that our own staff identifies and reports.”
The paper also works to identify the points at which errors first creep in to the process and adjust processes so as to minimize the chances that they’ll happen again, he said.
“People’s experiences with the fact-checking cards is that it’s good public relations but doesn’t necessarily provide good information,” he said.
However, the cards do help address the newspaper credibility issue, and the Oregonian might take another look at them, he said.
At the Star-Telegram, House promised that the newspaper wouldn’t be launching witch hunts against reporters who make honest mistakes.
“An honest mistake is an honest mistake,” he said. “If we’re satisfied that that’s the case, the reporter has nothing to be concerned about.”
House said that he hasn’t heard of any newspapers doing anything similar, though he’s received responses to his editorial outlining the new policy from around the country.
But even if the Star-Telegram’s decision doesn’t cause other newspapers to follow suit, House said he hopes that journalism students will sit up and take notice.
“I have talked to a good number of journalism school faculty members who all tell me that plagiarism is a problem that’s just out of control in some places,” he said. “The Internet makes it so easy, and the students, sometimes without realizing it, just grab something and plop it in the story and don’t give it a second thought. Those students have to learn that plagiarism is not OK, it is deadly and will destroy careers. They have to learn that before they get into this business.”
In fact, recent statistics show that House may be onto something.
According to the Center of Academic Integrity, 41 percent of students admitted to plagiarizing from online sources in a 2001 survey, compared to 10 percent in 1999. More disturbingly, 68 percent of students say that this is not a serious issue.
“I’m not sure that young people understand that that’s wrong,” said Steve Simurda, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts. “They need to be trained to understand the difference between reporting and stealing. They have to be told that that’s not the way you write a paper, that’s not the way you do research.”
That’s all part of what his department strives to do, Simurda said. On a few occasions, he’s double-checked papers that sounded too well written, he said, and found the source materials on the Internet.
He added, however, that it would be wrong to punish the student the same way a professional would be punished, by expulsion, because the students are still learning. However, there are still consequences to on-campus plagiarism.
“We certainly teach our students that plagiarism is wrong, and we reinforce that message often,” he said.
But Iowa University’s Bugeja sees another reason for accuracy problems in today’s newsrooms: the time crunch that today’s reporters are under.
“I might be able to produce two or three stories a day for a newspaper or one or two feature articles a week for a magazine by never leaving my desk, but what I lose in the process is a sense of reality,” he said. “It is my obligation to verify what sources say rather than to get two different opinions on a topic – both opinions might be wrong, and it’s the writer’s job to set the record straight or go back to the source and question his veracity and expertise.”
Bugeja is the author of “Living Ethics: Developing Values in Mass Communication” and “The How-To News Writer: 25 Ways to Develop Reporting and Writing Skills,” recently updated and available from the Iowa Newspaper Foundation.
“Nobody will suffer if reporters take time to gather quotations the old-fashioned way, speaking with a source,” he said. “I’m concerned about print reporters who never leave the newsroom. … These days print is falling below ethical standards because reporters are glued to terminals.”
At the Star-Telegram, House agreed that it’s good for reporters to get out and talk to people, but added that sometimes it’s just not practical.
“For example, I had a project in the Weekly Review, our Sunday editorial op-ed package,” he said. “It was the centerpiece for the Weekly Review, and I had to do all the work by phone because there was no way I could get out of the office – I had sources in Washington, D.C., in California, San Antonio, all over the place. A lot of reporters are stuck with that. I don’t think they like it, but I don’t think they have a choice.”
House also disputed that journalism ethics have gotten worse.
“When I covered city hall, I would usually turn in five stories a day, five days a week, plus I would write for Sunday,” he recalled from his days as a reporter in the 1970s.
Today, he said, journalists aren’t writing more copy than in the past, but they do have a broader mandate, he said.
“They must meet much higher expectations at the local level than in years past,” he said. “Multiple sourcing, sophisticated sourcing, writing technique – a premium is placed on anecdotal leads. Well, that means finding somewhere out there in the neighborhood or someplace that can provide you with anecdotal information. There’s far more pressure to come up with diversity in sourcing. Your sources are looked at according to ethnicity, gender, geography, all of those things. So I don’t think they could turn out in bulk the number of stories that once could be knocked out in an hour or less. It’s a very different world for reporters these days. Much more challenging, I think.”
Currently, prepublication fact checking at U.S. newspapers is confined to the routine work put in by editors to make sure that copy is accurate.
“It’s safe to say that every person who touches a story after the reporter’s worked on it checks facts one way or the other before the story goes to print,” said Jamie Gold, ombudsman at the Los Angeles Times.
Good editors with a feel for their communities can often tell if something about a story feels wrong – though some may side with their reporters out of a sense of professional solidarity.
“Twenty years ago, if a problem came up, even after a story was published, the editor would ask the reporter and the reporter would say, ‘Ah, that guy is full of crap.’ Unfortunately, we’ve found that they’re not all full of crap,” said Simurda. “The journalistic community has had an arrogance for years in dealing with people we write about.”
The increased attention to accuracy is good for the business, he added.
Simurda, who’s worked for a number of news organizations, has been fact checked himself while writing for magazines.
“By and large, I’m used to dealing with fact checkers,” he said. “I send them a thick packet of materials to corroborate my story and the phone numbers of my sources. Sometimes, I never hear from them, they have everything they need from me. And sometimes they go through your story virtually line by line. I like that. It makes you think again about what you’ve written and the conclusions you’ve drawn.”
Occasionally, he’s had to call sources back to verify facts and make corrections.
“The process has definitely helped ensure the accuracy of stories,” he said.
One of the fact checkers he’s worked with is Margaret Kennedy, who’s been a fact checker for almost 30 years and has worked at Fortune and the Columbia Journalism Review.
The CJR was a challenging job for a fact checker.
“It was being read by journalists who were outspoken in criticism if they found errors, and it was, of course, followed by the Columbia School of Journalism,” she said.
In her years as a fact checker, she said, the majority of journalists found it a nuisance. But some liked it and even were grateful.
With seasoned writers, she said, she would go through stories sentence by sentence over the telephone, looking for facts and possible errors.
She wouldn’t call sources, but she would ask to see all the supporting materials. It usually arrived by mail, later by fax. Today, she said, the profession has changed with the arrival of the Internet.
Yavuz Baydar, president of the Organization of News Ombudsman, said he’s aware of no newspaper that has taken fact checking as far as the Forth Worth Star-Telegram has.
However, he said the issue is very much on the organization’s radar screen and will be discussed at the organization’s May conference in Florida.
There is also a discussion planned for the April convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said Peter Bhatia, the organization’s president and an executive editor at The Oregonian.
ASNE has published the “Credibility Handbook,” Bhatia said, was involved in conferences at Poynter and the American Press Institute last summer, and dedicated the bulk of the winter issue of The American Editor to the topic.
Meanwhile, the Star-Telegram has picked its first article for fact checking.
One of the obvious issues with it is that it has an anonymous source, House said. It’s an interesting problem to address, he said.
“We won’t ask for the source’s name, but we will talk with the managing editor who approved the use of the anonymous source,” he said. “We’ll ask why he was satisfied that the use was justified and that the source was credible and the information provided was credible.”
Maria Trombly is a freelance journalists based in western Massachusetts. She can be reached at email@example.com.